ballmer.jpgMicrosoft chief executive Steve Ballmer just said at the Web 2.0 conference here in San Francisco that the software giant will acquire 20 companies a year for the next five years, ranging from $50 million to $1 billion.

This steals from the playbook of News Corp, the media company that generated excitement among Internet companies after it acquired MySpace and others. There’s a tactic here: By declaring you are hungry, you get entrepreneurs coming to you to show you their wares — letting you get a glimpse of emerging technology even if you’re not going to buy it.

Google and to a lesser extent, Yahoo, have also acquired dozens of companies over the past few years, with Google much more acquisitive recently. Google has acquired at least 10 companies over the last year (there may be more than we’re unaware of), compared to Microsoft’s four. Yahoo has also acquired four. See list here.
With Google’s momentum lately, the fear and loathing that startups once had of Microsoft might be ebbing. Microsoft became famous during its hegemonic rule of the 1990s for engaging in negotiations with a start-up, and then pulling back at the last minute and launching an internal competitor. Now, with less time on its hands to stay in front of eager, nimble Web competitors like Google, and needing more goodwill from Internet developers for its latest initiatives online, Microsoft may lose some of its ruthless edge — or at least, be perceived to be losing it.

[Mark Coker contributed to this report.]

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